Though Erno Metzner's 'Assault (1928)' was first introduced to me as a work of avant-garde cinema, it's actually quite mainstream, if a little dark thematically. A suspenseful, and occasionally humorous, morality play, the film follows the fortunes of an unscrupulous opportunist who happens upon a counterfeit coin, knowingly tries to capitalise on his discovery, and later regrets ever laying his eyes on it. In 1928, the film was apparently banned by the Germans censors owing to its "brutalising and demoralising effect," and they weren't kidding; there's not a single sympathetic character, and even our ill-treated protagonist had it all coming to him. Metzner keeps the story's pacing brisk, never allowing the tension to let up once it gets going, and excellent use is made of the Soviet montage style. Unlike in Dimitri Kirsanoff's 'Menilmontant (1926),' a French avant-garde short film that I recently watched for the first time, the quick-fire editing is not overused to the point of nausea, and so the images flow freely and accessibly, such that the editing itself practically goes unnoticed.
'Assault' opens by introducing the notion of the cursed counterfeit coin. A passerby, stooping in the middle of the road to retrieve the currency, is struck down by an automobile, the coin spilling out of the victim's hand and coming to rest in the gutter. Metzer produced his film during a period of German history that was plagued with economic difficulties. Doomed to recession by the Treaty of Versailles, and having suffered massive hyperinflation from 1921-1923, Germany (and the rest of the world) now sat at the cusp of the Great Depression, and times were tough. Ordinary citizens would be willing to cheat, maim and kill even for a counterfeit coin, and such desperation had, at least in the director's view, brought down the nation's ethical standards. 'Assault' is a grotesque and sardonic exploration of the lengths to which Germany has stooped in difficult times--sometimes funny, sometimes scary--suggesting the corrupting influence of money (amplified even further by the fact that this money, being counterfeit, is itself corrupt).